The Cruel Sea: Fortitude Music Hall, 30 November 2023

Outside the Fortitude Music Hall in Brisbane’s biggest nightclub strip, two hours before showtime, a long line snakes up and around Brunswick Street Mall. It’s been well over a decade since the Cruel Sea played here, and the 3,000-capacity venue is soon overflowing to the point of feeling oversold.

It’s a reminder of just how big the Tex Perkins-fronted outfit was in their heyday. They’re back to celebrate the 30th anniversary of The Honeymoon Is Over, their biggest album by far. Other than a low-key warm-up for a wildlife charity, this is the first of a half-dozen gigs that may or may not point to a second life for the band. There’s nerves, and some rust.

The audience, overwhelmingly in their 50s and 60s, are showing signs of wear too. The Cruel Sea were a strictly generation X, very Australian phenomenon. After the title track of Honeymoon became a hit – one of those songs that still appears on Triple M’s so-called Ozzest 100 – the Cruel Sea rode the wave until the end of the millennium, then vanished like smoke.

Tonight’s set is dedicated to keyboardist and guitarist James Cruickshank, who died in 2015. He’s replaced by Matt Walker, who ambles on stage with the band’s original trio: guitarist Dan Rumour, bass player Ken Gormly and drummer Jim Elliott. They slide into Shadder, one of a handful of instrumentals from arguably the band’s best album, This Is Not The Way Home.

The crowd is impatient. Then Perkins struts on and the energy in the room instantly lifts. Over the course of a 21-song set, he periodically wanders off to let the band play a few more of the surf, swamp and spaghetti-western themes he first saw them playing in a Sydney pub in 1988.

But the crowd’s restlessness is a reminder that without Perkins’ charisma, they’d still be in the corner of the Harold Park Hotel where they began. He’s looking lean and fit and loose – but nervous, too – as the band moves into It’s Alright (Cause She Loves Me), which Perkins sings in a higher register than usual.

You can see them looking at each other, searching for the old magic as they struggle with the stage sound and Perkins tries to find his way back inside the old songs. When it all clicks, they hit it out of the park: the whomping groove of Delivery Man; the snap, crackle and bop of Don’t Sell It, punctuated by a rap lifted from another of Perkins’ bands, the Beasts of Bourbon.

Better Get A Lawyer is introduced with a nod to Perkins’ Brisbane roots and the city’s bad old days. “Where would I be without the Queensland police?” he wonders rhetorically. “I’d still be here if it wasn’t for the Queensland police! They made me run away. Them, and the Catholics.” Perkins is one of many musicians from his era who never returned to his home town.

The band knows what they’re good at, and what the crowd wants. Songs are overwhelmingly drawn from the band’s first three albums, including the rarely played title track of Down Below. Again, Perkins sings this in a higher register, closer to Jimmy Little’s angelic cover, before he slips back into his more familiar baritone growl for the song’s last verse.

A six-song encore tests the crowd’s patience. Perkins has a short break while the rest tackle High Plains Drifter and 4, which stumbles to its conclusion. But they finish strongly: Honeymoon’s sultry closing track, Blame It On The Moon, is stunning, before their cover of Captain Beefheart’s Sure ’Nuff bids the crowd back into the steamy subtropical night.

First published in the Guardian, 1 December 2023

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